Colm Breatnach of the Irish Socialist Network and Scottish Socialist Party, reviews, bestselling, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, published by Penguin. Over a decade before the SSP, the Workers Party built up working class support which enabled it to win seven seats in the Dail, and one of the Dublin seats in the Euro-election in 1989. Colm outlines some of the particular political reasons for its subsequent split and decline. However, he also draws wider lessons for the Left, pointing to the dangers of a party degenerating into electoralism, and emphasising the need for real democratic methods.

The Lost Revolution work sets out to give a detailed account of the rise and fall of Official Republicanism and its successors and in that it is remarkably successful. Some might demand more analysis but this is to miss the point: the authors provide the raw material, leaving it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Underlying the detailed nature of this book is the remarkable achievement of getting such a disparate range of members and former members of the WP/OIRA to give their side of the story.

The Lost Revolution is an interesting, even exciting, but often depressing read. Ironically, in their attempts to cover the story of the WP from start to finish, the authors largely miss the one real gap in the clouds: for a brief period in the late 1980’s the party attracted thousands of working people as members, supporters and voters, These people were not working for the establishment of some bleak {Eastern European} ‘People’s Democracy’: they were fighting to build a people’s movement that claimed to, and in some distorted way did, represent their real material interests. They believed what it said on the tin: here was an organisation that belonged to the workers. When the writing on the tin proved to be a lie, the workers deserted with remarkable rapidity. Within a few years the vast majority of WP members/ supporters, in the South at least, had abandoned the two successor organisations.

But that betrayal of trust should not blind us to the fact that much good campaigning work happened at a local level, work that made a real difference to people’s lives: on housing, employment, facilities, etc. The mode of operation was often, initially at least, based on the active participation of those effected by these issues. Unfortunately, this often ended in the cul-de-sac of electoralism, as those mobilised by campaigns were sucked into electoral machines. But the lesson here is that left organisation can mobilise people successfully, especially if it is willing to listen to their concerns rather than deciding in advance what the important issues are. What happens afterwards is largely down to the nature of the organisation.

So how did a movement ostensibly dedicated to the emancipation of the Irish working class turn into the beast it became. The Lost Revolution clearly shows that the degeneration did not happen overnight, nor did it arise solely from the flaws of individual leaders. The bitter split with the IRSP/INLA, the fierce onslaught of the Provisional IRA in 1975, the isolation of the organisation in the North, laid the ground for some of the flaws; the contraction of diverse views in an increasingly undemocratic internal regime, the obsession with the Provos, the uncritical adoption of statist Stalinist ideology, the ideological dominance of Eoghan Harris and his followers, the uncritical pro-Soviet foreign orientation, the shift from a republican socialist to what in practice was a unionist analysis.

The sorry story of mistakes and crimes that is catalogued in The Lost Revolution should drive home the vital lessons: you cannot build a commonwealth of equals on a conspiracy of unequals, or erect a popular democracy on a foundation of party autocracy. These are not just historic lessons but ones which, given the Leninist roots of many of Ireland’s socialist organisations, are more pertinent than ever. While it is fair to say that none of today’s groupings display the degree of degeneration what the WP/OIRA did, the potential pitfalls are very real. Hopefully a read of The Lost Revolution will give comrades pause for thought and might even contribute to the emergence of a movement that truly deserves the accolade of being the party of workers.

From Resistance, No 11 (bulletin of the ISN)